Wells Fargo banker is cautious, but optimistic about economy in 2020

By Brett Johnson
New Jersey | Dec 11, 2019 at 11:44 am

There’s no harbinger yet indicating that 2020 will be the year of economic slowdown, according to a top bank official.

In fact, Pete Dontas, who leads Wells Fargo’s New Jersey commercial banking outfit, might say the opposite: There’s a healthy interest in securing commercial business loans in the Garden State near the calendar’s turn. And that’s a good sign.

But, at a time when noted economists are staking the odds of a recession occurring by the November 2020 election as being between 25% and 75%, Dontas, like anyone, is well aware there’s a wide range of possibilities.

“It’s a question I get a lot,” he said. “I think the main themes going into next year for us is that we’re coming off a great year with a lot of loan growth … and I expect 2020 will be a good year, too. Will it be as robust as the past couple of years? We’ll see. But our pipeline is strong.”

Dontas and his team lends to businesses across with sales ranging from $5 million to $2 billion. The market served by the New Jersey footprint of Wells Fargo, the nation’s fourth-largest bank, also spans all industries.

But there a few favorites right now. Food and supermarket distribution businesses have been a really active area recently, Dontas said, as have logistics business in general.

As for the slowdown in the freight industry that pundits feared would have far-reaching implications for the nation’s economy, Dontas said his corner of the banking sector hasn’t felt any shockwaves yet.

“I haven’t seen a slowdown even there,” he said. “Although I’ve seen some trucking companies that have had some challenges, I also deal with these businesses that are strong. It depends on the business and the way it’s run.”

When it comes to other trends, Dontas commented that the pace of mergers and acquisitions — fueled by private equity — has accelerated over the past couple months. He expects that rapid-fire transaction activity will continue.

But just as no one banker alone knows for sure what’s in store for 2020 — and whether it’ll be the year of a downturn after many years of economic expansion — not every signal from the banking sector is clearly positive.

“(For example), I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been as much capital expenditures given some of the new tax favorability of it and generally how good companies are doing,” he said. “We haven’t seen quite as much on that side, but we have seen some.”

What might account for that, he added, is some of the uncertainties around tariffs — the anxieties that some are predicting will soon drag the economy down.

“Regardless, I’d say we’re generally optimistic,” Dontas said.